Making time for fitness, part two – 20kg lost in two years

January 2017 saw me start a habit that changed my life: I started walking five miles every morning before breakfast. Two and a half years later, it’s time for a progress update and a statement of intent for the next step.

The situation in January 2017

In ‘Making time for fitness’, I wrote:

I often go for nearly a week without leaving the house, and might only achieve 2-3,000 steps a day. I spend far too much time sitting.

I was a typical freelance home worker, spending my hours chained to a desk. Exercise was something that happened at weekends or on walking trips, never during the week. When I penned that blog post, I considered myself slightly overweight but basically not too unfit; however, when I look back at the difference between now and then, it’s clear that my hiking ambitions were far beyond the capabilities my fitness afforded me. I was more overweight than I thought I was. Something had to change.

Stage one: Walk2017 and a standing desk

Stage one was simple: I participated in ViewRanger’s Walk2017 challenge, and set myself the task of walking 1,500 miles in the year. The key to doing this was forming new habits, and the main habit I formed was to walk five miles every day before breakfast. I did this without fail in every kind of weather. I kept at it until it was just something I did without thinking when I woke up.

At first the improvement in my fitness was slow, and I didn’t actually notice any significant difference until July 2017, when I hiked the 200-mile Jotunheimstien in Norway and found the hiking much easier and faster than I had expected. Being pleasantly surprised by my improved level of fitness has been a recurring theme on every walk ever since. I hit 1,500 miles on the last day of 2017.

Weight loss took far longer to kick in than an improvement in fitness because I didn’t change my diet in 2017 (it was a stressful time, due to my dad’s rapidly declining health, and I didn’t feel capable of making huge changes in my diet given the uncertainty). By the end of the year I was still significantly overweight. When I started logging my weight, in December 2017, I weighed 95kg. This was a bit of a wake-up call and led to more significant changes in the following year.

Anyway, the second part of the original plan was to upgrade to a standing desk (more accurately, a sit/stand desk). I was concerned about doing too much sitting and wanted to do something about it. I’ve found this to be a positive change, although I have no evidence it’s actually contributed to improved health or fitness; the key benefit for me is that I find certain kinds of work better when standing up. In practice, I tend to stand for around 60-70 per cent of the average day, and use the desk in its sitting configuration the rest of the time. This has also been a habit I’ve stuck with.

Pinnacle Editorial HQ in June 2019, featuring an Ikea sit/stand desk.

Stage two: diet and more hiking

So, early 2018. It was a bad time. My dad died in February amongst a string of other family deaths, and the stress and anxiety seemed insurmountable at times. I kept going with my daily walks, despite everything, but my overall health and fitness were not at their best. I didn’t spend much time in the mountains in the first half of that year either. However, I had something important to work towards: Hannah and I had set a date for our wedding in May 2019. I was determined to get on top of things before then.

From March 2018 I adopted the keto diet for around four months. The idea behind this diet is that you exclude all carbohydrates and sugars, eating more protein, healthy fats and fresh veg instead. Theoretically, your body goes into ‘ketosis’ and begins burning fat instead of carbs. It sounds extreme, and I found it extremely challenging, but it does work: I shed a lot of weight in a short period of time, and even after coming off the keto diet I did not regain more than a kilo of that weight. One of the hallmarks of keto is rapid initial weight loss due to the body’s water reserves being depleted, and only after this does fat burning take place. After returning to a ‘normal’ diet, the water weight comes back on more or less straight away, and I’ve read that the rest of the weight can also return if you aren’t careful.

Some keto adherents claim that this is a diet for life, but I’m not convinced about that. Some studies have indicated that people who exclude carbs in the long term put themselves at higher risk of heart disease and other ailments. There is a lot of pseudoscience (and plain old wishful thinking) out there around this diet, too, and I’ve formed the opinion that it probably puts adherents at a greater risk of disordered eating. Based on my experience I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone as a long-term thing, but I can tell you that sticking to it for four months led to a net weight loss of 10kg for me.

After coming off keto (a relief, let me tell you, as it made me incredibly grouchy) I took the opportunity to make permanent changes to my diet:

  • Breakfast every morning is plain porridge, made with water and a dash of milk. This may sound boring but I actually find it delicious; this is my favourite kind of porridge.
  • Lunch most days consists of large amounts of fresh veg and salad. I’ll usually eat a bowl of rocket, watercress, spinach, radishes, mushrooms, carrots, and more. I do mix it up by having wraps and other foods occasionally, but I love eating fresh salad so this is my staple lunch.
  • The day’s main meal remained mostly unchanged in 2018, although in 2019 my wife and I have started to cut back on red meat (which we already didn’t eat in large amounts). I have no plans to go vegetarian, but my diet is substantially more plant-based than it was two years ago.

In addition to these new habits, I’ve been maintaining my hiking: morning walks plus the odd long-distance trail. Each backpacking route I do helps me shed a bit more weight. The most beneficial so far has been my February 2019 Cape Wrath Trail, which saw me lose around 4kg.

These simple changes have led to steady weight loss since I implemented them a year ago. As of June 2019 my weight is down to 74.5kg, an improvement of 20.5kg since my metaphorical low point in December 2019. However, I could still stand to lose a couple more kilos. My ideal weight is around 70kg, but I want to keep a little in reserve as I’ll be thru-hiking the Haute Route Pyrenees from July 2019 and I always lose weight on the trail.

Stage three: running

One problem I have is that I live in a flat part of the country. I can walk pretty much as far as I like without hitting any hills; I’m lucky if I encounter a 100m contour. This means that, to significantly improve my cardiovascular fitness, I need to up the intensity.

Until now, I’ve done no exercise apart from walking. Walking is great exercise, but I need to be fitter for the Pyrenees, and I still need to shift a couple of kilos.

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My wife and I have come up with a plan: we’ll go running on three evenings during the week, at 18.00 or 19.00. We’ve started with a couple of short runs around the village, the first 4.5km and the second 2.5km (which will most likely be the course we use for our regular runs). It has been a number of years since I did any running. I remember it feeling like bloody murder. It doesn’t feel so bad now, but that’s because I‘m the lightest and fittest I’ve been for at least ten years. I’m now at the point where I’m having to gradually replace all my clothes because my old ones are now tent-like on me.

To say I’m pleased with progress is putting it mildly. However, I remain vigilant; backsliding is possible at any time.

Things I’ve learned

  1. Changes stick best if you change one thing at a time, and start small.
  2. Forming habits is important.
  3. Everything in moderation, including moderation itself.
  4. Minor changes applied consistency over long periods of time can have a huge impact. You don’t have to make drastic changes to your life, but you do have to be consistent.

16 Comments

This is interesting to read Alex. I remember when you started the 5 mile a day habit. At the time I thought 5 miles in one go every day would be a bit of an ambitious target for a habit and advised something smaller like a mile which would mean the habit was easier to maintain but which could be added to. I am impressed you’ve kept up the walks.

Running will help in terms of upping the intensity. However I’d caution you to be careful of injury risk. I went through almost 4 years of daily running at least a mile but the streak ended in January with a suspected stress fracture. Running is great but carries injury risk and my outlook now is that I want to minimise injury risk so that my ability to walk is not put in danger. In something I wrote in TGO years ago I called it the DFYU factor – Don’t F Yourself Up. ( https://medium.com/@chrishighcock/10-tips-for-hiking-faster-a8a1b8532e2c ) Certain injuries change you for ever and you simply don’t recover the same. That is certainly my perspective at 51.

Other options you could try to add intensity might include adding weight to you walks – if the 5 mile is getting very easy add a 10kg backpack?

Also I’d recommend you think about some basic resistance training. Even pushups, planks, a row and a wall sit can really round out your fitness and add some robustness to your body.

Thanks for your thoughts, Chris! I’ll certainly bear your warning about injury in mind – I don’t want to overdo it. I have thought about adding weight to my pack on my morning walks (at the moment I hike with very little). Must admit I hadn’t even considered any form of strength training, but I’ll look into it…

Thanks Ash, although to be honest it hasn’t felt as much of a challenge as I expected it would. Small changes applied consistently over a long period did the trick… perhaps it helps that I am a compulsive planner!

Congratulations Alex! Establishing good habits like that takes dedication. I did keto a few years ago and lost a lot of weight very quickly, and have mostly kept it off. I agree it’s probably not a long term diet (lots of speculation online that it can damage the kidneys long term) but I’ve dipped in and out since as needed.

One downside I found was leg cramps, which is apparently due to electrolyte imbalances caused by reduced water retention. Upping the salt intake and magnesium supplements seemed to help.

Thanks, Stefan – interesting to hear you’ve found keto useful. I’d also use it for short periods again if needed. I didn’t find leg cramps to be a problem, but I’d read some people can be affected by them.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you could take a look at “Climbing Nutrition”: https://www.climbingnutrition.com/

From the “About” page:

Climbing Nutrition began in 2015 with the purpose of helping climbers (or really anyone) make good, rationale choices about nutrition. With this goal in mind, Climbing Nutrition produces content that focuses on three primary concepts:

⚫ Sports Nutrition for Climbing
⚫ General Nutritional Advice
⚫ Critical Thinking About Nutrition

May or may not be relevant, but at least you’ll know about it.

That’s really good progress Alex.

I came back from trips to Ireland and Canada last summer feeling really bloated and sluggish after a few weeks of over-eating and drinking!

Getting home I intuitively wanted to reduce meat (not cut it out completely) to approximately 1-2 dinners/week, and add fish 2-3/week and veggie dinners 2-3/week. Snacks now are fruit, nuts and avoiding salt and sugar based treats. I’ve gradually lost those extra 3 or 4kg you refer to and feel good.

Continue to run a couple of times/week at an easy ‘conversational’ pace and build the time you are out (often referred to as Zone 2 training) and add maybe 1/week bout of intensity (e.g. a cycle spin class) and the sky’s the limit in terms of improving mountain fitness.

Of course, that’s only my opinion and others will see it differently. Have a great trip to the Pyrenees.

I went on a similar journey a few years ago and lost 15kg from cycling. At the time I went a bit too far and got as low as 62kg which was a bit unhealthy. I’ve now settled down at 68-70kg without dieting and excessive training.

Well done, a big thing is the habits – which I’m failing at somewhat. I’ve read Atomic Habits and need to implement it. I have back issues and need to build a daily habit of core exercises and am failing.

Well done on the weight loss Alex. I’m curious as to whether you do much in the way of longer walks over rougher terrain leading up to your backpacking trips, or whether you find you walk yourself fit on the trail?

Chapeau! I am/was in a similar situation, desk job, partly home-based… Thanks to a keto summer I lost 20kgs two years ago, since then I “managed” to get a few of the kilograms back. What helps me to keep the weight in control (having no time to multi-day hiking) is partly cycling for the odd commute now and then but mostly my kickbike (https://www.mibo.cz/gt) either solo or with the dog – much less body stress than regular running, compared to cycling it gets many more muscles moving. And its great fun. 🙂

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